Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Citizens of the Empire

I was in Seattle recently and I stopped in at the anarchist collective bookstore, Left Bank Books, to buy a couple of books--workers collectives deserve support, and this one usually has interesting titles on offer. (An online store, which is linked to in the title of this post, is promised soon.)

I've just finished one of the books: Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. It is not, alas, a work replete with earth-shattering insights. It seems written in haste, and it contains far too many passages nostalgicly retelling episodes of moral awakening in the life of the author--a form of writing sadly prevalent on the Left. But despite its faults, the book does say some things I would really like to hear more people--in politics, in media, in general--talking about.

As the subtitle of his book hints at, Jensen sees dissent against the empire-building policies of the US as a moral imperative, particularly so for US citizens. Jensen, as a dissident against the current administration (and not a big fan of former Democratic administrations, either), urges citizens to publicly confront at every opportunity the ideology of the American empire. He sees in our political discourse three main features of that ideology that work to prevent real discussion and real change of imperial policies: 1) The unchallenged assertion from both the Left and the Right that American is the 'greatest nation on earth'; 2) The call to 'support our troops' regardless of one's political views; and 3) Patriotism. The first of two of these items, I agree, are huge obstacles to change in foreign and domestic policy, and they need to be undercut. I disagree with Jensen, though, that patriotism itself needs to be renounced. I think there is a good patriotism that can be harnessed to drive a progressive political movement, as I've said in previous posts.

1 comment:

christian_left said...

I'm glad that ambivalent_maybe brought this book to our attention. I like it a lot, finding in it some good hard moral reasoning about being an American citizen today. I was energized and refreshed by its provocative approach based on hopeful idealism and uncompromising values. I also read Peter Singer's latest book on globalization, entitled _One World_, which I found somewhat disappointing. Both are addressing, at least in part, the issue of how as American we need to think about the lives and well-being of non-Americans as being of completely equal value to our own. That seems like a moral imperative that should be obvious, but from the things that are said in our society, maybe it isn't clear. But this point should be foundational to our thinking about issues.

Despite the initial pragmatic discomfort I felt with Jensen's opposition to "patriotism" and the "support our troops" framework, I ultimately have come to conclusion that he is basically right. He effectively deconstructs the rationales that have been offered for patriotism, arguing that favoring the interests of Americans over non-Americans in any way is morally questionable. To me, his writing is a beacon call of ethical clarity amidst the muddy, pragmatic compromises we are tempted to make to avoid appearing radical.

And I actually appreciated his autobiographical digressions, which to me humanized his struggles with these issues. He comes off as very principled, stubborn, and uncompromising in these interactions, but it also makes it sound very authentic.

One other thing I liked was his concise summary of why we as Americans need to have more pain and less pleasure. Though it goes against the utilitarian motif of modern society, I think he is essentially right that our moral development requires a deeper struggle with the suffering of others. And, hey, I'm a bit of an old-fashioned Christian moralist (albeit of a left-wing variety), so this all struck a chord with me!